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Archive for Sunday, February 6, 2005

Open government

Legislation to close loopholes in the state’s open records and open meetings laws will make it easier for the public to access important government information.

February 6, 2005

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Informally, it's called the "Lew Perkins Provision," but the measure currently being considered by the Kansas Legislature would reach far beyond a single case to ensure Kansans have access to important information about public employees.

The law would require the compensation agreements of all public employees to be open to the public. It is named after Perkins because of the lawsuit filed by the Lawrence Journal-World and others to open the record on the KU athletic director's compensation package. The judge ruled that the compensation package was covered by the Kansas Open Records Act; the proposed law would clarify the act so that other similar lawsuits wouldn't be necessary.

The World Company spent about $40,000 in legal fees to gain access to the records. Such an extraordinary cost is beyond the reach of most individuals and many organizations that might face an agency's refusal to divulge a record. On the other side of such issues, the money and staff time the university spent -- or which any other government agency might spend -- in defending such lawsuits certainly could be better used for other purposes. And in most cases, the money the agencies spend is derived from tax dollars paid by the citizens who're seeking the public record in the first place!

In addition to the measure currently under consideration, the Legislature should consider changes in the law to make it easier for successful plaintiffs to be reimbursed for the cost of litigation. In order to recover legal fees now, a plaintiff must show that the defendant not only violated the Kansas Open Records Act but acted in bad faith while doing so. That means there is little chance that defendants will have to pay the fees and, therefore, they have little to lose by attempting to sidestep the open records act. If those who were convicted of open records violations automatically had to pay the plaintiff's legal fees, fewer records cases might make it into court.

The "Perkins Provision" is one of a package of open records measures being pursued by the Kansas attorney general and the Kansas Press Assn. Other measures would establish a public integrity office in the Attorney General's Office to prosecute violations of open records and open meetings cases, would require that private companies that derive more than half their funds from public agencies be subject to public disclosure laws and clarify other provisions of the open meetings and open records laws.

All of these measures would help make the actions of public bodies and the use of public money more transparent for the people who are paying the bills. Here's hoping legislators will see them not as threats to government but as steps toward open government.

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